I goofed and thought I had this ready to post on Saturday but didn’t. I *think* I’ll be able to increase to postings twice a week!
The following day, Darcy read in the library as the ladies walked about the gardens. They had arranged for Lydia to join them as a special escort for Jane. If his staff thought it unusual, he trusted that Mrs. Reynolds would keep them quiet. Elizabeth had explained that it was not bizarre for a woman without female companionship to grow close to her maid. Naturally, Elizabeth’s relationship with her maid would be vastly different because Mary and Georgiana lived with them. Frankly, Darcy did not care very much if his servants became curious about Lydia, and Dorset’s ridiculous ideas blew up in his face.
As though summoned by his thoughts, the duke emerged in Darcy’s doorway. “Ah, Darcy. I thought I would find you in here. I suppose we ought to have our words while the ladies are without.”
Darcy’s brows shot to his hairline. Darcy motioned for Dorset to be seated and offered him a drink.
“No, thank you. Would you be surprised to learn that I am a teetotaler? I am convinced drink had as much to do as anything with my ancestor’s rakish ways.”
“I can ring for tea or lemonade if you like.”
“Do you have any coffee?”
Darcy rang for a servant, keeping the conversation brief and civil until the refreshments arrived.
Once the door was shut, Darcy stared at his companion. “You approached me, Dorset. I assume you have something to say.”
“On the contrary, I had thought I would allow you to vent your spleen. There is no reason for bad feelings to fester between us.”
“Then allow me to get to my point. What the devil are you thinking?”
“I should think that would be obvious.” Dorset sipped on his coffee and crossed one leg over his knee. “My aim is to prevent scandal reaching our families.”
“You are openly courting a scandal by this ridiculous scheme. Mark my words, the truth will come out, and then you will look even worse.”
“Allow me to rephrase. I am attempting to keep our ladies clear of any disparagement—”
“Except for the idea that you may have seduced Jane months before you married—before you even met.”
“The timing of when we met is not common knowledge. Besides, marriage is a great eraser of a multitude of sins. If I am a rake, I’m cured by matrimony. If Jane is a fallen woman, she is redeemed by wedding me.”
Darcy rolled his eyes. “I suppose I should applaud you for not forcing Lydia to marry, although I admit that would be an easier solution.”
“There is a difference between marrying a duke after being seduced by him and being beguiled by a penniless soldier. If it were known that Jane and Elizabeth’s sister had thrown away her virtue for such a man—one with no hope of enough income to marry—then it would be presumed that the other ladies might be just as free with their favours. By that, I mean the gossips would declare that Jane and Elizabeth had been the lovers of other men before we married them.”
Dorset uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, a serious expression on his face. “Think of Mary and Georgiana. Jane and Elizabeth might be saved by marriage, but Mary and Georgiana might bear the stain forever.”
Darcy knew that Mary and Georgiana cared little for high society and would rather stand beside Lydia than force Jane into such a scheme. However, it seemed futile to argue that point with the duke. “There is much for you to lose out of this and all to save Lydia’s reputation. Do you really think such double standards are right?”
“Are they right? Of course, not! However, it is the world we live in. You and I can be excused many things that unwed ladies cannot.” Dorset sighed and leaned back in his seat. “I can see that you think Lydia should not be absolved entirely of her folly. As the brother to a much younger sister and something of a father figure, I can understand why you might think that way. However, Lydia is not the only one who made decisions, and we must bear with the consequences.”
Darcy stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“You desired to be rid of Wickham, and I was willing to do anything so I might marry Jane. Did you really think there would be no repercussions to that?”
The coffee and biscuits soured in Darcy’s stomach, and his blood turned to ice. “Your uncle?”
“Step-uncle, as he does not let me forget.” Dorset raised his brows. “I understand he has made you a visit.”
“He did. He “offered” me a junior cabinet position or a diplomatic post. In short, he required my allegiance as payment for arranging matters with Wickham.” Darcy had found no solution to his problem, but every time he imagined joining forces with Liverpool, his insides recoiled.
“Will you take it?”
Not one to encourage false assumptions, Darcy decided to tell the truth. “No. I am only thinking of a way to turn him down without creating an enemy or inviting catastrophe. He threatened to expose Lydia.”
“That is his way. Or, we can go along with his plan for Jane and me to adopt Lydia’s child and keep both of our names clean—or cleaner, at any rate.”
“I wondered if it was Liverpool’s idea! I had not thought you would be so senseless and unfeeling to Jane.”
Dorset groaned. “When you get in bed with the devil, you have to know that you will be burned.” He put aside his coffee cup. “Now, I think we understand each other and could do with being allies. Will you support me in this?”
“Does Jane know the truth?”
“She does,” Dorset nodded. “I have kept no secrets from her.”
Darcy remained silent for several minutes. “I will not bend on joining your uncle’s politics, but if Lydia agrees, I will support her decision. I do not like this, but knowing that Liverpool has assured Lydia’s ruin otherwise tips the balance.”
“And joining my uncle?”
“He allowed me until Parliament resumes before I must give my answer. I will find an alternative. I must.” The time had come when he could no longer avoid telling Elizabeth about Liverpool’s demands.
“I wish you luck with that. Now, shall we join the ladies?”
While Darcy and Dorset were in conversation, the ladies walked about the gardens. Coming to the portion that had been Lady Anne’s favourite garden, Georgiana stopped to describe various species of roses to Lydia while Mary was in charge of collecting the blooms. The younger three ladies had determined to create new arrangements for the principal rooms. Elizabeth caught Jane’s eye and tilted her head toward the path. Jane took her meaning, and they walked arm in arm until they were a safe distance from their sisters.
“How are you truly, Jane?” Elizabeth asked.
“Must I tell you again how happy I am?”
“I know how you hate to cause trouble or disagreement. You will insist you are happy even when you are miserable.”
Jane looked stern but smiled a little. “If you are so certain of that, then why do you bother asking me? Am I known to lie?”
“No—but perhaps you do not know yourself.”
“I should hope I have greater sense than that!”
Elizabeth squeezed Jane’s arm. “Very well. I could never accuse you of foolishness. If you say you are happy to be married to Dorset, then I will believe. Only, tell me truly, do you really wish to raise Lydia’s child? I am sure you would be an excellent mother—but to be held as a fornicator…” She sighed. “Tell me that Dorset is not forcing you to do this.”
“You must not be so hard on him or worry about me so much. I do love him very much.”
“I am not concerned about your love for him. You esteem people very readily, and you have every inducement to fall in love with him, even if your heart was touched before. I am worried about this decision with Lydia. It does not seem in your character.”
“We must attempt to prevent scandal as much as we can.”
“And if all the truth comes out, will it not create an even bigger scandal that you and Dorset lied?”
“Perhaps,” Jane answered. “But I believe the greatest and more enduring disgrace would be the exposure of Lydia’s state.”
“If you do this and it is revealed, then Lydia will likely never recover. If we merely keep matters quiet, she might have several respectable options, even if they are lesser than we had first hoped.”
“However, it is improbable that she will be accepted in polite society and could marry well. Lionel is extremely well connected. Why should the sister of a duchess settle for a tradesman or tenant?”
“It is unlike you to care so much about status,” Elizabeth observed.
Jane sighed. “I do not, but I do want what is best for Lydia and all of us. We really do not have a choice in the matter. I am not at liberty to say more, although I believe Lionel is explaining it to Darcy as we speak.”
“What on earth do you mean there is no choice?”
Jane met Elizabeth’s eyes. For the first time ever, Elizabeth noted a lack of innocence in her sister’s expression. Jane had endured much in recent months and been awaken to the cruelties of the world. Undoubtedly, her recent marriage exposed her to even more of the world.
“Here are our husbands now.” Jane smiled past Elizabeth’s shoulder. “Perhaps you might ask Darcy your questions,” she whispered.
Elizabeth turned her head. Darcy and Dorset said a few words to Georgiana, Mary, and Lydia before continuing to meet their wives.
“If I might steal my wife from you, Elizabeth,” Dorset said, “I should love to walk with her.”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said, barely paying attention to the duke. She focused her eyes on Darcy, who looked as though he had unpleasant news. Jane and Dorset meandered down the main path, while Darcy directed Elizabeth along a side avenue.
Sensing that it could be some time before Darcy found the necessary words, Elizabeth was too impatient to wait for him. “Jane has told me that they do not have a choice in adopting Lydia’s child. She said that you would know more and refused to answer any of my questions.”
“Dorset has just informed me of the situation. It is grave, indeed.” They stopped at a bench and sat. “I am perhaps not as shocked at the situation as you will be. There is something I must tell you before I can discuss what Dorset has explained to me.”
Elizabeth listened and prayed for patience as Darcy explained Liverpool’s unexpected visit some weeks before and then his demands of Dorset. At first, she was wounded that her husband had not confided in her immediately. However, she squashed the selfish urge that arose and listened to what Darcy did not communicate in many words. He had sought to keep the situation from her because he thought she was already over-burdened. It was a mistake but done from love and care.
When he had finished, Elizabeth sighed. “I suppose we were naïve to think that Liverpool had assisted in the arrangements out of the goodness of his heart.”
Darcy shook his head. “I cannot include you in the blame. I should have known better for I knew Liverpool’s reputation of ruthlessness.”
“And did Dorset have any idea that his uncle might blackmail him later?”
“I am unsure,” Darcy answered. “He did say he arranged it so he might marry Jane. I can certainly understand the motives of a man desperately in love. I surely would have been willing to do just as much to be with you.” He knit his brows. “You are not angry with me for withholding the information?”
“I should not like it if you did it again. We are to be partners in all things. However, I think your heart was in the right place, and as I understand it, you were only waiting for the correct time. That is not so different from my occasions of telling you about my own conflicts.”
“I am deeply sorry that this must give pain to you. When I had arranged with Dorset to have Wickham sent to the Continent, I thought most of our fears on that front were over. I had thought I was saving you the pain of seeing your sisters humiliated and unhappy. Now, it seems that has only been misdirected to another.”
“You are not to blame for the decisions and actions of another. No matter what happens regarding this situation, it is only our reputations at stake. If Wickham had remained in England, Kitty would be in very material danger from his gambling and rakish ways.”
“We shall have to cling to that fact and hope it is enough. It feels very much like sacrificing one or more sister to save another. How I loathe it!”
“Come, we must think positively,” Elizabeth said. “We cannot change what is. However, we might be able to slowly change the way the world sees such things. I am thankful, in some ways, to know that Jane and Dorset choose this because of Liverpool. I did not like thinking they could be so ridiculous and foolish.”
Something pricked in Elizabeth’s heart. Despite what happened with her sisters, her first allegiance was to her husband. She would not allow him to think less of himself or think her love was conditional. “Dorset’s suggestions did not sit well with you because you are an honourable and truthful gentleman. You hate deceit. However, you are also a loving man who esteems family and their happiness above all things.”
Elizabeth kissed him. “Thank you for considering my family as your own and how best to keep them happy and safe. You are truly the best man in the world.”
Darcy sighed while shaking his head in disagreement, but some of the tension in his shoulders eased. “You humble me and think too much of me. If I am the man that you say that I am, it is only because you inspire me to be worthy of you.”
Such sweet words could only be rewarded in one way. When their kiss broke, Elizabeth caressed her husband’s cheek. “Now, we have neglected our guests long enough.” Elizabeth stood, and they made their way back to the rose garden. “I have written to Sarah Calverton about the unexpected arrival of Jane and Dorset. I expect a reply soon, but I believe they will be welcome to join us when we go to Manchester next week. What do you think about taking the Calvertons into our confidence? Should everything be exposed, I think it would be best to have allies.”
Darcy thought for a moment. “If your sisters agree, then I think it a prudent idea. Lord Calverton has become a dear friend, and I trust them.”
Spending the rest of the afternoon with their family, Elizabeth sighed in relief. If they were fortunate, everything would go according to Dorset’s plan. If it did not, then while their reputations might be ruined, at least Elizabeth did not have to worry about Jane. She knew what she was about. Still, that left three other sisters to fret over.